Statewide, drug overdose deaths in 2020 are on track to surpass the 2019 record by 20 percent, according to the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. Those numbers come on top of a reported 18 percent increase in deaths in 2019 over the previous year.
In response to the increase, Gov. Ned Lamont declared Monday, August 31 Overdose Awareness Day in Connecticut.
“Addiction is an illness that should be treated just as any other public health emergency, and we cannot allow this epidemic to continue consuming our families and residents,” said Lamont. “We need to send the message that this disorder can no longer hide in the shadows and be treated like something that shouldn’t be discussed. Resources are available for those seeking treatment, as well as for the families and loved ones who want to provide support. We need to spread this message of hope far and wide so that we can save lives or even prevent someone from going down the path of addiction altogether.”
“Overall what we are seeing is that we are on pace to exceed the overdoses that we saw in total last year … it’s pretty consistent with what other northeast states are seeing,” said Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.
Also troubling is the continued increase in overdose deaths involving fentanyl and xylazine. As of June 2020, 87 percent of the 560 overdose deaths involved fentanyl and 14 percent involved xylazine.
Xylazine, typically used as an animal tranquilizer, was first identified as a source of substance abuse last year.
“What’s not slight is the increasingly higher jumps in the percentage of fentanyl and xylazine deaths. Every year it is jumping up,” Delphin-Rittmon said.
As of mid-July, 76 of the 666 total confirmed overdose deaths involved xylazine compared with 70 deaths total in 2019.
“As we fight the COVID-19 pandemic, we know that many families have been, and continue to be, under severe stress due to economic hardships and being in isolation. People are hurting and are overburdened, and this has contributed to a spike in overdose deaths,” said Lt. Governor Susan Bysiewicz in recognition of Overdose Awareness Day. “Today, we remember all of the lives that were lost to addiction and we recommit ourselves to reducing stigma, securing the funding needed to provide treatment and prevention, and ensuring everyone has access to telehealth.”
Continued emphasis on providing services
Although hospitals, private practices and many other healthcare providers shut down services deemed “non-essential” or transitioned them to telehealth during the spring and early summer, the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services made efforts to keep their services open as a matter of life or death, said Delphin-Rittmon.
“An important thing right out of the gate for us was to maintain as much of the existing services and support during the pandemic as possible,” she said.
Continue operation of methadone clinics was identified by government officials as a top priority.
After an initial two-week shutdown, the federal government loosened regulations which allowed participants in the state’s medication-assisted treatment program to take their weekly doses home. This change was intended to allow participants to continue receiving treatment without the added risk of taking public transportation to a clinic. This relaxation of rules is expected to continue as long as the country is experiencing a pandemic.
Other programs, including recovery coaches, recovery support groups, detox centers and residential providers have also continued to provide services throughout the pandemic, both in-person and virtually.
“We kept as much going as we safely could,” Delphin-Rittmon said. “We know people with addiction may be compromised in terms of their physical health, so we had to walk that delicate line.”
A feared side effect of the pandemic
As efforts in Connecticut to control the spread of COVID-19 began in March, many in the mental health field worried that the social isolation and widespread unemployment would lead to an increase in suicides and accidental drug overdoses.
“We haven’t done hardcore studies, but what we are hearing anecdotally is that the pandemic is stressful. For some people social isolation may be a stressful trigger, loss of employment, uncertainty around health, all the things that we are talking about anyway,” Delphin-Rittmon said. “It may be that people who are vulnerable to and taking substances during this time.”
Although overdose deaths have increased, data available to date on suicide deaths does not confirm that hypothesis.
“Our suicide rate is a little bit less than where we were last year, nevertheless, we did see suicides,” Delphin-Rittmon said.
Between January and May, there have been 17 suicide deaths statewide under the age of 24, according to the state. There have been no suicides recorded since May. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40 percent of individuals between the ages of 18 and 24 are experiencing some symptoms of anxiety, depression or suicidal ideation since the start of the pandemic.